Carver had done what he could; now it was up to the priestess to live or die. It would be a near thing, but perhaps enough warmth had remained in her core, her chest and belly, to keep her in the world. He had removed her sodden and frozen clothing—she would just have to accept that, if she lived—and wrapped her in the lom fur cloak he'd been wearing. The fire was built up as much as the limited draw of the fireplace would permit, turning the air in the shelter into a dense stew of the smells of wet stone, wet wool, and wood smoke. But warm. The layers of green and brown robes and limb wraps she'd been wearing—the ones she hadn't thrown to the wind in the final delirium of cold, anyhow—hung in the small center of the shelter, the only standing room, between them and the stacks of split firewood in the crawl space opposite. The garments were no longer stiff with frozen rain but would stay damp, in these conditions, for days.
The warming had to be slow, Too fast, and her blood could carry poisons from her chilled limbs into her heart all at once, shocking it into stillness. He had placed a skin of warmed water at the small of her back,. A potful of ice water hissed and steamed on a grate over the fire.
It would be better to wrap himself up in the fur cloak with her, and warm her with his own body heat. But that, he'd decided, would be going too far, asking too much of her tolerance and his… dignity, perhaps. Reluctance, anyway. It they'd had to huddle in the storm in the open, that would be wood of a different grain, but here in the shelter, the fire would serve.
He shifted the cloak to uncover her head, and reached in to checked her pulse at her neck. It was still there, weak but not faltering. Her hair was black and only shoulder length, perhaps abbreviated for the exigencies of travel. Her skin was darker than his—whose wasn't?—and more olive-brown than the Nuwingan red-brown or Gendan tan. That, and the cut of her tunic, made her most likely a Merigan priestess. They came sometimes, once in a great while, to the heart of Nuwinga, for a solstice vigil in view of the sacred Agocho. But this one had met instead a blinding storm of sleet and freezing rain and cold, whipped up to lethality by a merciless wind.
Her expression was serene, which was not a good sign, because her ears, nose, and fingertips would be quite painful when, if, she awoke. The whitened flesh there would feel like burns. Not like burns feel afterward, away from the heat, but burns that were still in the fire burning. He'd have to start attending those soon, to save them if he could, but it was still too soon. He reached under the cloak to her right wrist. No palpable pulse had reached there yet. But there would be time.
He reached past the hanging garments to grab two more splintery pieces of wood that he added to the fire.
Denna felt herself suffocating. She reached blindly to free her nose and mouth from some damp and heavy covering. Her hands and face were wet and numb and burning all at the same time. Frantically she pawed at the obstruction, some furry creature… no, just fur, and it shifted past her eyes and suddenly she was staring directly at a fire.
"Calm, there," a man's voice said. "You're safe. Lie still."
"Burner," she said to the fire, and was surprised that she'd spoken out loud.
"I brought you to a shelter. You were on the mountain."
She peered into the flickering gloom to find who had spoken. He was right there next to her, gray-haired and gray-bearded, dressed in a plain reddish-brown wool shirt and some sort of lined leather trousers. His skin was pale but his hands and face were streaked where sweat had run through smoke smudges. Those hands were the largest she'd ever seen, and the man's shoulders looked massive too. He looked like he had a pretty hefty belly to match, though it was hard to tell for sure, in the cramped space and shadowed firelight.
"Put your arms down," he said. "Your hands need to be in the warm water, and I only have one pot and one bowl to use."
She tried again to examine her hands but could only see them silhouetted against the firelight on the wall. "It hurts," she said, and at the same time realized that under the furs, she was all but naked. "Oh." Strangely that realization brought some clarity to her mind instead of alarm. The man was treating her. She remembered being in a storm, in a wind colder than she could ever have imagined. She'd been lost, nearly blind, battered by falls and near-falls, barely even to walk or even stand after the cold rain covered the exposed rock under her feet with a layer of ice.
She let the man guide her wrists back toward the containers her hands had been immersed in. The water felt boiling hot. She gasped with pain, but didn't resist.
"Your left hand got the worst of it," he said. "You must have taken that mitten off first."
"I took…?" She remembered warmth, a feeling of passing through an ordeal and arriving at a place of peace and comfort. "Yes, that's right. Mam Gaia came for me."
"You were dying of cold. That's what happens, sometimes. I've seen corpses half undressed, or all the way."
"I was supposed to be reborn. I was ready."
The man stood up, leaving Denna looking at his knees, the leathery trousers covering his legs. His voice came disembodied from the gloom overhead. "Reborn," he said. "Tell me, do you really think that, or is it just something you say to be polite?"
She didn't know how to respond to the impertinent question. After nearly being reborn in the storm, was she still in danger here, from him?
"Where are we?" she asked.
"This is a shelter I set up, high on a shoulder of Whycah Mountain. We're two kloms from where I found you. This part—" he patted the sloping roof and one wall—"is a ruin. It's the foundation for a tower that, I'm told, was once part of a machine that carried people to the top on a cable."
"Oh, yes. They're around. Even Agocho had a machine, a railroad, that carried people straight up to the top. It went up a ridge on the far side from here. There are still traces you can find."
Which probably means he's climbed there himself, thought Denna. Maybe nothing at all was sacred to him. That meant she definitely was in danger, alone with him.
Still, he must have carried her here, and hadn't taken advantage of her while she'd been helpless. Even amid her other bruises and scrapes, she would have known, if he had.
"Of course, everyone knows about the ruins on the top of Agocho," he was saying. "You can see them from here, from the ledges below us I mean, across the valley. At the dawn of the old world, they called that part of Agocho, the highest part, Washington, after the first Presden of Meriga.
"Here's a story I heard. They printed papers up there, like pages of an almanac but written a few pages each night, to tell what happened the day before, that they heard by radio. Every morning, boys would take that day's pages and slide down the railroad tracks on wooden boards from the top to the bottom, to sell them to the people living in the towns down there. The boys thought it was great fun, even though sometimes one of them would break his neck coming down."
Denna pulled her hands out of the pot and bowl. Her fingers still tingled but the worst of the burning sensation had passed. She said, "and you believe that story, but not in being reborn?"
"Ah, 'believe.' I believe in stories, which is different from believing they're all true." The man crouched back down on the ground and poked at the fire.
"You priestesses talk about being reborn," he went on, "but I don't remember any other lifetime, or being anyone or anything but myself. So if I get 'reborn' tomorrow, and come back as a baby or, I suppose as a lom, to live a different life without remembering this one, well that's no different from me just being ended and some different baby or lom being born."
"'Ended?'" she repeated. "You're not an old believer, then?" Old believers didn't get reborn, or didn't think they did, but they believed they went somewhere else when they died. Unless they were different in Nuwinga.
"Oh, the old believers have a fine deep story. A resurrected god who forgives, and saves us from the wickedness we're born into. I wish it were so. I could be an old believer, except for the 'believer' part."
"You don't seem to believe in much of anything. What are you?" He was retrieving more wood from the stockpile. "Lumberman?"
"Ha!" he said. "Burner, lumberman, ruinman. Tanner, brewer, hunter, trapper."
"Which guild, though?"
He guffawed derisively. "None. I don't belong to anyone."
A man with no guild was no one to be trusted. She could be in trouble, and might even get reborn after all. But she wouldn't cringe or beg, or mince words.
"In Meriga we'd call you a defiler," she said.
"In Nuwinga too. Just words. I do what I do."
"You cut and burn and hunt and trap without blessing, is what you do."
"'Easier to get forgiveness than permission.' That's the rule in Nuwinga, for dealing with Circle, and with you priestesses too. Been that way since before the old world. Even in the towns. Nuwinga's different from Meriga that way, though they don't admit it. And up here, well, do you see any red hats anywhere around?"
"I'm not talking about Circle. I meant, without Gaia's blessing."
"If by Gaia you mean the world, here it is." He made an all-encompassing gesture. "And here I am. That's all the blessing I need."
"Taking what you want. That's the thinking that brought the old world down," she said. And what, she thought but didn't say, did he want now?
"This wood, this fire, is what you needed to keep you born, or however you'd put it. When you let others take what you need, and then you shut them outside the walls for it, call them lumbermen or ruinmen, that's when you're re-making the old world. Thinking yourself different, trying to deny that if you have lumbermen then you are lumbermen."
That, Denna knew, had been a long-running sore point between Temple and Circle. But it seemed he had her on the wrong side of it. "We priestesses know that better than anyone!" she said. "We carry Gaia's blessing to everyone, whether they plant or burn. But we can't stop people from being people. And we can't all live in the wilderness."
"I suppose this place would get crowded," he said.
"And I suppose asking 'what are you' was the wrong question," she said. "Who are you?"
"Ha! Got me there. They call me Carver."
"Please hand me my clothes, Carver, " the priestess said. She was staring at the fire again. "That thin brown cotton wrap first." Despite the warmth inside the shelter, broken only occasionally by cool drafts as the wind swirled this way and that outside, she was shivering now. That was a good sign, as long as her muscles didn't exhaust themselves.
Carver watched as she passed the fabric carefully through her hands, and produced by some sleight of hand a small cloth packet. She dropped it into the half-full pot of water. "Put this back on the fire to boil," she said.
Without waiting for Carver's reply, she reached under the cloak and pulled out a small knife. Carver wondered where she had carried it. Wherever it had been, he hadn't seen it or felt it while carrying her down the steep icy trail or while stripping her wet outer clothing. She used the knife to slit the edge of the cloth, which she then tore into long narrow strips. The movements of her fingers were stiff and clumsy but she didn't complain of any pain.
She'd be afraid of what he might do, he thought. Or what he might have done, if he were a lot younger still, though she couldn't know that.
He thought about reassuring her, making promises, but that would only give her more cause to fear. Better to pretend that no such idea had ever crossed his mind.
She sorted through her other clothing. It was still damp and smelled of smoke, but most of it was good wool and Carver knew it would still provide protection from the chill outside, where they must soon go.
"If you're leaving, Priestess, I'd suggest waiting for dawn," he said.
"It's not still solstice night." She spoke with certainty, but there was still a question in it.
"The night after. You slept all day. The water in the skin is drinkable, and fresh water's not far. But I had to leave my tools and pack sledge up near the ridge to go after you. Which means I have no food here. We'll have to move on when it gets light."
Carver fussed with the fire while Denna rested quietly with her eyes closed. After a while, the pot had warmed and a spicy scent mixed with the stale air. She handed him the torn cloth strips and told him to immerse them in the heated mixture.
"Back in Meriga," she said as he put the cloth strips in the pot, "Gaea sent me dreams of Nuwinga. I saw the mountains, but they weren't worn and rounded like here, they were steep and sharp. And there was a cliff with a stone face in it, a bearded old man."
"I heard there are mountains like that all over the world, much bigger than these," he said. "There was a stone face a few days' walk from here, but it crumbled away with the old world. Maybe you saw pictures in an old book."
"I thought there would be something new here, something I'm sent to learn."
"So you didn't just come here to be reborn?"
"I don't know. Perhaps not."
"It seems to me if getting reborn was the idea, there's much easier ways to do it."
When the pot had cooled, Denna pulled out the soaked cloth strips. The two longest ones she wrapped carefully around her hands, finger by finger in a practiced pattern. When she was done the ends were folded inside somehow and each hand and finger was covered. She wrapped another strip in tilted bands around her face above and below her eyes, covering her nose and ears. Then she sat up, pushing the fur aside, covering herself with her heaviest green cloak.
From somewhere in the folds of the garment she pulled out another little herb packet. "Put a little water in the pot, and make tea with this," she said. "For both of us. It will give us a little more strength."
Denna realized she was no longer shivering. Her limbs felt weak but capable. Fortunately her feet were uninjured, well protected from the cold as well as from the rough footing, by heavy leather over-boots lined with wool felt that she'd acquired a weeks' travel inland from Porta. She would be able to walk.
The loss of her mittens was a greater problem. Though Carver had assured her that the worst of the cold was already past, exposing her raw hands to the wind would be excruciating. Carver agreed to sacrifice part of the length of his cloak, and when the small kit of needles and thread from her under-tunic turned up missing, torn away by the wind no doubt, he'd set out using his own belt knife to cut and lace crude lom fur hand-pockets for her using strips of the shaved hide.
She had offered to pay him for these goods when they reached a bethel house. He grunted vague agreement but wouldn't discuss a price. Her own money was lost with her own food and supplies, but her sisters or the people would aid her.
Her misgivings, that there she was entering into some kind of Dell's Bargain with this strange man, had not entirely left her. But she had little choice. If she could get back south to a town or even a farm, she could try to end the bargain and make a new one with someone more trustworthy.
She'd tried to make further conversation.
"Are you alone out here, Carver? Do you have a companion?" she'd asked.
"None," he'd said. "I'm afraid my tastes in… companionship aren't sanctioned here. Or anywhere."
"Really? You don't mean children, I hope."
"Well then, I hear Nuwinga is like Meriga, very tolerant of variation. Men, women, tweens, as long as you're both willing."
"Well, there's the problem."
So, he wasn't willing. Asexual, loner, misanthrope maybe. Bad experiences with people. It happened. There would be time to probe more delicately. She was trained to advise in such matters.
Feeling more herself, she looked around the tiny shelter. The roof that had looked like stone was a slab of ancient pitted concrete, stained black with soot and steeply tilted toward the stone fire pit at the lowest end. The smoke from the fire ran along it toward its top edge. Here and there, deeper pits in the concrete exposed some of the metal rods embedded in the slab, from which Carver had hung the horizontal cords on which her clothing had… well, not dried, but gotten well-smoked, at least. The roof joined two side walls, which were more or less vertical. The whole structure had the shape of an open crate held sideways and then tilted up on one edge, but with the bottom partly filled with rubble to make the floor closer to level. The bed she'd lain on was a simple canvas cot stretched between smoothly carved wood poles. The open side of the shelter's concrete "crate" was closed with a roughly stacked wall of un-mortared stone, that stopped just short of the top edge to provide a vent for the smoke. A tunnel-like passage through the wall was closed off by pine boughs trapped behind a lattice of sticks.
Faint light was leaking through the vent, and peering behind the pine-bough door. It was dawn.
Denna began softly singing the observance for the sunrise, the parts she could do while laying down and uncertain of direction. Carver, still busy lacing the crude mittens, made no comment. She had worked most of her clothing back on, leaning close to the fire to bake as much of the moisture out of it as she could.
When she was finished, she declared the tea ready. The pot had cooled to a pleasant warmth and they both drank, she from the bowl and he from the pot. As the light from the openings had brightened, they had allowed the fire to burn low, and Denna watched with mixed feelings as Carver scattered the remains and stomped the embers and wet them into extinction, nearly emptying the water skin.
There wasn't much else to gather up. Denna unwrapped the bandages from her hands. They were still wet, and it would do her hands no good to chill them again. Instead she put on the fur mittens. They were loose, but folded inside so that she could keep them on by grasping them from within. Carver secured his knife, wrapped the cloak around himself, put a small bag of other items inside the pot, and slung the pot and the water skin over his back.
He shifted some stones at the lattice at the entrance and then lifted assembly lifted away, two lattices with fresh pine boughs squeezed between them. Beyond the opening, a passage sloped upward toward daylight.
The two emerged into gray brilliance and wind. They were on a shoulder high on the mountain, at the bottom edge of a finger of forest stretching from the shoulder to higher slopes. The trees of the forest were barely few meetas tall, but densely interconnected, impenetrable except along the trail.
In every other direction, the ground dropped away into a white void. The wind-whipped mist exaggerated the heights and depths of the mountainside. Carver knew that there were a few places in these mountains where one might fall a great distance through open air, but there were not many of them, and this was not one of them. What looked like an empty void beneath their feet actually sloped away rather mildly a dozen or so meetas down. Still, a fall that far onto the tumbled boulders below would as likely kill you as not.
From above ground, all that cold be seen of the of the shelter was the concrete ruin, a pedestal that had fallen from its footing when boulders below or above it had taken another step on their slow persistent march down the mountainside. There was no sign of the metal tower that had once risen from it, except some rust streaks on the downslope side. Unless one looked closely down the entrance tunnel between the stones, the shelter wall looked like any of hundreds of other piles of jumbled rocks across the mountainside.
"There's no clear path down from here. We have to go up first," he said to the priestess. He led her toward the forest.
In no more than a few dozen steps, they were in what seemed like an ordinary woodland path, except for the diminished height of the trees. The ground was wet from the mist but not frozen. The dense pines to either side blocked their view and cut the wind. The path soon began sloping upward, gently at first and then more steeply, and began switching back and forth across the width of the shoulder. For a few hundred meetas it seemed the land around them was rising more steeply than they were climbing, until what had been a ridge projecting from the main summit had transformed into the bottom of a forested ravine, with steeper slopes all around.
Carver turned around to Denna and pointed upward, toward the top of the ravine wall above them. There was another concrete foundation there, this one upright, as though it had been and would be there forever, still supporting a few upright metal struts.
The path turned along the ravine wall and worked its way up it, first to the left and then doubling back to the right. The slopes that had looked vertical from head-on turned out to be steep but manageable, retreating back the same distance they rose. Near the top, the tops of the trees were barely higher than their heads, and as they climbed past the last trees, the wind returned. The height of the ravine had taken them past a slight gradation of temperature, and the character of the mountainside changed again within a few steps.
Above them and to either side was an open slope of broken rock that seemed, not despite but because of the mist limiting their view, to stretch out without limit. The rocks were limned with ice that seemed to be growing from the stone, forming horizontal spikes of ice on every exposed edge. The spikes pointed directly into the wind that was carrying the mist up the slope from the shrouded valley below.
"This way," said Carver, proceeding to the right, sideways along a slight crease in the slope that made for slightly easier steps. "Easier going up ahead." Compared to the storm two nights previous, the conditions were not all that difficult, and except for grabbing his cloak for balance from time to time, she was keeping pace with little difficulty.
The daylight brightened on the slope to their left and suddenly, within a minute or two, the mist cleared away around them. They could see the valley below, and then the nearer slopes of Agocho, and then the whole central ridge. Agocho was covered in white. Even the ruins at the top, tiny at their distance, sparkled in the pale sunlight, brighter than the piles of gray and black cloud that still shrouded the surrounding hills. The storm had pelted Whycah with sleet, but the higher ridges of Agocho were covered with new snow.
"There she is, Priestess," Carver said. "Might that be what you came to see?"
"They call it the heart of Nuwinga," the priestess said.
"The heart of winter," said Carver. "Winter here comes earlier and deeper now than in my younger days. Old people I talked to then used to see snow once or twice in a few years in their younger days. Priestesses traipsing around on the solstice weren't risking their necks so much then."
"It's changed that much? Are you sure?"
"Here's a story I heard. WInter used to live way up in the very north of the world, on a big floating island of ice. It lived there all year round, sleeping through the summer, and in the fall it would stir and begin to prepare. Around the solstice, it would throw itself into the wind and fly around the world, bringing snow and ice and cold. But when the old world fell and the ice island melted, all the world saw any more was a weak shadow of what winter had been. The real winter, deep winter, took refuge right here in Agocho, waiting for the time it could return to its ice island. It's waiting still, but getting restless, like the start of a long long autumn. Give it a few more lifetimes, and it'll be back. The heart of Nuwinga is knowing it's there sleeping, knowing it'll be back."
As if to illustrate Carver's prediction, flows of cloud soon begun spilling over the shoulders of Agocho, veiling them again from view, filling the valley below, and creeping up the lower slopes toward them. They stamped the cold out of their feet and continued toward the path down.
"How long ago was it," Denna asked, "when winter came later than now? How old are you?"
"Now that's not a very polite question, young priestess."
"It's just, you know a lot of strange stories. I wondered."
"Strange stories are all I know. When I was a tot I learned to talk, and what are words but little stories? Ask what a word means and the answer you get will be a tiny story. Oh, sure, there are some words that you can point to and say, that's a tree, and that's a mountain, but even those things you don't know unless you know their stories."
"I know all about that."
"I have to come from somewhere, right? So if I didn't get reborn from somebody else, it seems I'm just made out of bits and pieces of old stories instead."
They talked about other stories. The time the old believers say a great flood covered the whole world. The chemist who brought a man made of dead body parts to life. Trey Sunna Gwen and his search for the seven treasures of the old world. The voyages of the living tree-ship Pelagaea that planted new forests all along the Nuwinga coasts after the old ones died with the old world. The priestess's own travels down the lower Ussen, up the Lannic coast to Ports, and overland to the mountains.
Their path climbed over a lip of piled rock and then descended into another finger of forest. Almost immediately, it began descending steeply, below the ice level. "We're heading for a camp of mine," said Carver. "Got some supplies there, some food, and a dry shelter."
"Is that where you live?"
"Up here? No, I have a comfortable lodge, up a different valley, where I can do my work."
"What do you carve?"
"Here's a story you won't believe. I carve toys."
"For children. Dolls and tops and burr puzzles and little loms with wheels for feet."
"Because I can. Well, and because toys are always new. A kid gets a toy and to them it's something new in the world. It's a way to be part of their stories. That's the only way of getting reborn I can accept."
The path rolled on down the hill, one stone after another underfoot for klom after klom. The forest grew taller and denser. The air lost its chill and a few clear patches appeared in the sky, though the trees hid the sun and the surrounding mountains most of the time.
"I said back there that there are bigger mountains," said Carver. "But there aren't any older. Not in the whole world. We can't imagine how old they are, but stand in a place like this and they'll whisper it to you.
"Here's a story I heard. There was a time these mountains were spires going seven kloms into the sky. When they were part of different continents before they split up and moved around to make the continents we have today. The world is old, Priestess. The difference between what we call the old world and today isn't even an eye blink to these mountains.
"Your Mam Gaia, you think of her as something like Circle, but bigger. Making rules, deciding punishments, listening in on your rites. Like she notices us at all. But who was she punishing when she ground these mountains down under two kloms of ice?"
The man's maundering was becoming irritating again. Denna said, "Carver, I don't think you really understand much about Mam Gaia."
"Maybe not. Just stories I heard."
Carver walked in silence for a while, and when he spoke again it was about mundane things. The hours of daylight left, the likely weather, the distances to farms and towns. In much less time than it had taken Denna to climb to the ridge on the solstice eve, the slope had again become gentle, and soon the path they were on joined a more well-beaten one that followed a rushing stream.
Over the sound of the water she heard faint voices, far away and out of sight. Carver heard them too, and took a few quick steps back, and looked around warily.
"People ahead," he whispered. "Don't tell them I helped you, or that you even saw me. You won't need these…" He took the improvised mittens from her hands. Denna didn't resist, but she felt him pull hard enough it wouldn't have mattered if she had.
"They've come looking for you, most likely, and found my camp. I'm sorry I didn't get to give you toys. If you get a chance, there's some in the camp, in a bag under the flat stone by the fire pit, but don't let them see you take them. Give them to children. Goodbye, Priestess."
He hurried away, faster and more furtively than she'd seen him move before. For all his size, he seemed to blend into the forest and disappear within moments.
She didn't try to question or follow. Instead, she walked on to where the voices sounded clearer.
Easier to get forgiveness than permission, he'd said.
Well, there's the problem, he'd said. After she'd said: "… as long as you're both willing."
I do what I do, he'd said.
A resurrected god who forgives, and saves us from the wickedness we're born into... I wish it were so.
What had he done, with what consequence? She could guess, but did she want to hear the story the name "Carver" would unlock?
She followed the voices to a hidden camp a hundred meetas off the path. Two men and a sister robed in green were there, searching.
She called out to them, wondering what she would tell them.